by Professor David Lowe*
The alternative title to Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War film satire, Dr Strangelove, made in 1964, was ‘How I learned to stop worrying and Love the Bomb’. Given the number of nuclear warheads today, greater uncertainty following President Trump’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal, plus sabre rattling in East Asia and even the old Cold War lines of Moscow vs Washington, it might be better if we kept worrying. But something strange is happening to our relationship with the bomb. Around the world, the nuclear legacies of the Cold War are becoming tourist attractions. This trend is driven by heritage measures, a beckoning from museums to join the pantheon of past wars being remembered, and sometimes by quick-thinking entrepreneurs. In Australia too, the twelve bomb tests between 1952 and 1957 and 25 minor tests through to 1963 have been the subject of recent academic and media attention, especially two years ago, with the 60th anniversary of the commencement of testing at the biggest test site, Maralinga. Since 2015, tours of the Maralinga site in South Australia have been run by a tour company with permission from the Maralinga Tjarutja people.
Some of the tourist attractions elsewhere are former nuclear bunkers that appeared rapidly in conjunction with the escalating arms race, especially during the 1960s. Bunker-42 in Moscow is an elaborate former command post that was on hyper-alert during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The Ejby Bunker on the outskirts of Copenhagen was similarly on edge in the early 1960s, but after lying disused for some years, re-opened to the public in 2012 and caters for school groups; and the practical Swedes have put some of their massive civil nuclear shelters to use as car parks. In the Baltic States and elsewhere across northern Europe, private owners with an eye for the tourist dollar have been trying their hands at bunker restorations.
Not surprisingly, the United States hosts a number of nuclear museums and historical sites, including the National Atomic Testing Museum, opened in Las Vegas in 2012 and the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, where, since 1995, the public has been able to tour the elaborate Government bunker complex prepared to enable Congress and the US government to keep functioning after a nuclear attack. But the biggest recent development was the creation, in December 2014, of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, incorporating the three main sites where the bomb was made (Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington) and tested (Los Alamos, Mexico). The scale of human labour and scientific endeavour and the ‘can do’ attitude are much-celebrated in the new Manhattan Project Park. Experts told journalists that the project was a human achievement comparable to the building of the pyramids. The mayor of Oak Ridge said the park was not about weapons. Remediation of contaminated areas, at huge expense, continues in some parts of the park, with plans to open up more to tourists in coming years.
Some fine it hard to resist a playfulness in this. You can feel the rush of air accompanying a nuclear blast inside the National Atomic Testing Museum, as well as ponder the coincidence of weapons testing and UFO sightings in the Nevada desert. In Moscow, Bunker-42 welcomes children’s parties and karaoke. Tourists can sit at controls and ‘launch’ a former Titan II missile site in Tucson, Arizona; and when some former Royal Observer Corps bunkers dotted around the British landscape were sold off in the early 2000s realtors, of course, claimed they were perfect for ‘a nuclear family’.
Bunker 42, Moscow, picture D. Lowe
Some may argue that such playfulness subverts the power and potential horror of a dark past. Perhaps .. What, to my mind, remains unsettling about all of these examples of a growing phenomenon is the decontextualization and the circumvention of thinking accompanying them. The horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not going to spoil the story of the Manhattan Project Park, nor the ongoing privations and battles for compensation by the Marshall Islanders whose islands were destroyed and irradiated in the 1950s. Those living in some proximity to the Soviet testing sites in Kazakhstan have had it even worse. Nor are we to be reminded of those who tried to stop the nuclearisation of the world. None of the above examples of atomic remembering feature the huge protests at the deployment of nuclear weapons, including the one million people in New York’s Central Park in the middle of 1982, the Women’s Peace Camp entrenching themselves at Greenham Common in England soon afterwards, and the valiant efforts of the ill-fated Rainbow Warrior, sunk by the French in Auckland Harbour in 1985, and killing a photographer in the process.
Bunker 42, Moscow, picture D. Lowe
Nuclear remembering in Australia is still taking shape. While rough and ready, the tours of Maralinga may actually be more frank about the enduring displacement and health legacies of testing at Maralinga and other sites.
We might do well to remember these more ghastly aspects of an atomic past in a world that seems far from free of nuclear dangers. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists currently have their Doomsday Clock set at two minutes to midnight. While they take into account dangers beyond nuclear weapons, these loom large in their calculation. The clock’s setting is the same as in 1953, and the closest it has ever been to midnight.
Listen to David Lowe and others providing ‘A Short History of the Nuclear Bunker’ on ABC Radio National’s ‘The History Listen’
*Professor David Lowe is head of the Contemporary Histories Research Group at Deakin University. David is a co-founder of the Australian Policy and History network and a member of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Editorial Advisory Board, advising the Australian Foreign Minister with respect to the Documents on Australian Foreign Policy Series. David’s research centres on cultural aspects of the history of international relations, including Australia’s role in the world; and on remembering the legacies of modern wars and empires in comparative contexts. He is currently researching the role of international education as a component of foreign relations, and the history of postwar foreign aid programs, including Australia’s foreign aid. David is the 2018-19 Smuts Visiting Research Fellow at the University Cambridge, researching the role of the Commonwealth in planning and implementing aid and development for a decolonising Asia in the 1950s.